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What does the story of the fig tree mean?

May 30, 2015

Mark 11:11-26                                               Friday 29 May 2015

Solemnity of the Dedication of the Temple

Today’s gospel, which seems to me to be particularly appropriate for the celebration today of the Dedication of the Temple, is rather an intriguing story.

Let’s put it into context. Do you remember the story of when Jesus was 12 and He was taken to the Temple by His parents, and He got lost on the way back? And then, when they finally found Him after three days of frantic searching He said something rather odd to Mary and Joseph. He said ‘Why were you looking for me. Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?’[1] He is the Son of God; He IS God. He belongs in the Temple. The significant of this story is at about the age of 12 or 13 Jewish boys would go on their Temple pilgrimage with their parents, but afterwards they would go back with their father and take up the trade or profession of their father, following their father about, to be with them and learn their trade. Jesus did exactly that: He went to where His Father was (his step-father Joseph travelled off home without Him). Jesus knew about the Temple. It was his home. It is where He had to do His work. And He knew the Temple well.

So what is happening here today in this story? Let’s start with the fig tree. It sounds like Jesus has got confused. It sounds like Jesus has lost His temper and cursed this poor little innocent fig tree that’s standing there. Why should He do that – it’s most unfair! It’s not even the season for fig trees to fruit. It says:

‘He felt hungry. Seeing a fig tree in leaf some distance away He went to see if He could find any fruit on it. He found nothing but leaves.’

So He has walked some distance to have a look at it, in the hope perhaps of finding the first fruit. None there! This is a direct reference to the Book of Micah, where it says that God wanted to collect in the harvest, and He couldn’t find any fruit. The Jewish people and the early Christians would have immediately spotted that connection:

I am in trouble. I have become like a harvester in summer time, like a gleaner at the harvest: not a single cluster to eat, not one of the early figs I so long for. The devout have vanished from the land, not one honest man is left. All are lurking for blood, every man hunting down his brother. Their hands are skilled at evil……   (Micah 7: 1-2)

This quote from Micah is referring to the fig as the Children of Israel, the Chosen People, who are not producing the fruit. God is very disappointed with them.

When Jesus ‘curses’ the fig tree, Jesus is announcing that God has arrived and the harvest is underway, that the existing order of this – the corrupted, unfruitful Temple authorities and their sacrifices will wither away – they are not producing the desired results. And so on the next day, Peter spots that the fig tree has withered from the roots (note that, this is not a case of the fig tree simply not fruiting; no, the fig tree has withered away from the root, completely barren, with no hope of recovery). Jesus explains that this is an example of the power of prayer – but it is a direct reference to Jesus being God, and fulfilling the prophets.

In this intriguing story of the fig tree Jesus is showing He is God. He is showing that He has power over everything: the big things and the small things. He correctly prophesied that the huge Temple would be completely destroyed (and it was, 70 years later by the Romans); and also the fig tree, the little fragile plant – He also has authority over that. All life, all things, are under God’s control. They are ‘held in existence’ by God[2].

After the fig tree incident, we come to the story known as ‘The Cleansing of the Temple’. What is this about? Has Jesus lost His temper here? Well, He was human; He is clearly frustrated, saying,

Does not scripture say that my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples? You have turned it into a robbers’ den. This reference to a ‘robbers’ den’ is a direct quote from another prophet, this time the Prophet Jeremiah.

Do you take this Temple that bears my name a as robbers’ den?’

Jeremiah 7:11

In this extract[3], God instructs Jeremiah to stand at the gate of the Temple and proclaim God’s message – a message that bluntly announces that the people have abandoned true worship, that the Temple has become corrupted, and as a result the untrustworthy people of God are to be driven out and exiled.

What does a ‘robbers’ den’ mean? We need to think about this. First of all, note that both Jeremiah and Jesus are talking in the plural – the translation ‘a den of thieves’ makes it clear they’re talking about lots of thieves. And a ‘robbers’ den’ is NOT where you get robbed! A ‘robber’s den’ is the place a robber goes after he has robbed you – a place the robber feel’s safe from being caught, a place to hide and count the ill-gotten gains, a place to be with accomplices. This story is NOT about people being robbed in The Temple; it’s about robbers going into the Temple. It is repeating exactly what Jeremiah had to say – it’s is about people who, during the week are ignoring God’s laws, ripping off other people, selling them short measure, trading counterfeit and adulterated goods, conning other people, all this sort of thing; and then on the Sabbath they turn up at the synagogue, and once a year they go on pilgrimages to the Temple. And these hypocrites do it ostentatiously, for everyone to see. In our case it is people who forget about God during the week, then ‘tick the box’ by coming to mass on Sunday, going to confession once a year, that sort of thing. Maybe they put a £20 note in the collection to salve their conscience, thinking that’ll be fine. Oh no it isn’t!

Now of course there had to be some sort of exchange process going on outside the Temple, because the Temple was the only place where the Jewish people could offer animal sacrifices to God. The rules required that the animals had to be fine specimens, and the Temple authorities would make sure that the animals were of the required standard – lambs, oxen, birds for poorer people (when Jesus was presented at the Temple as an 8-day old baby, His parents, not being very well off, bought a a pair of turtle dove or two young pigeons[4]).

So organizing suitable sacrifices for pilgrims is OK. What is not OK is to disobey the Mishnah. (The Mishnah was a commentary written by the Jewish teachers and experts on the meaning and application of the Jewish oral tradition. It was basically the rules of Judaism based on oral tradition and accumulated wisdom – a bit like the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) The Mishnah makes it clear that ‘vessels’ are not to be carried to and fro in the Temple. The Temple is not to be turned into a bustling hive of activity, people continually moving backwards and forwards, turning it into a marketplace. Of course there are things to be organised, but these should be done quietly in the background. They should not become the main focus of attention. We have a piety stall at the back of church, but it’s not open during services, and it’s discretely in the porch. The problem comes when the ‘shop’ at the back of church becomes more important than the liturgy; when money raising takes precedence over worship. This can so easily become the mindset, justified by ‘having to pay for the building’.

[This can become a problem in our ancient cathedrals. Of course they are beautiful building, major tourist attractions. But they cost a lot of money to keep open; people can lose sight of why the church is there and get obsessed with the money. An example of this sort of thing happened a few years ago when one of our ancient cathedrals was kindly offered for a special celebration of the mass. The cathedral was packed to the gunnels, but the atmosphere was marred when a cathedral official announced that each person should gives at least £5 at the collection, as they had been obliged to shut the cathedral to tourists during the mass, and only £5 each would cover the lost revenue!]

The Temple was a very holy place. Jesus was objecting to the bustle and kerfuffle of people trading. Worse than that was the exploitation of pilgrims and worshippers. The rules said that only Jewish currency could be used in the Temple (Roman coins, for example, bore images of pagan Roman emperor-gods). And there was also a problem in that the Temple was not only the centre of national religious life; it was the centre of the Jewish state. The Temple was also the equivalent of our Bank of England. It was also a tourist centre. All these things had become badly muddled. And in all this, only Hebrew money was allowed on the premises, so there were money-changers (not money lenders!). These people were fiddling the exchange rates to their own personal advantage. Not good.

All this made Jesus very annoyed – His Father’s house was not being shown due respect.

The message coming through here is that God’s People must not be hypocrites. We must consistently obey God’s Law, at all times, outside the Temple as well as inside the Temple. People must not behave like the Pharisees, observing the letter of the law but in the process undermining and subverting things, judging others and making worship very difficult for ordinary people.

The same applies to us today. When we come into church we must behave with proper decorum. This is a holy place. This does not mean we must be miserable. It means we respect God being present in a special place. We learn from this gospel that God belongs in the Temple. Jesus disagreed completely with what was going on in the Temple. He could have chosen to boycott the place, but no, that is not an option: God belongs in the Temple, and Jesus is God.

He is present with us in His temple now. Present in the Tabernacle; present in us, through our baptism, as the Holy Spirit. We behave accordingly.

[1] Luke 2: 41-50

[2] c.f. Isaiah 40:12; Colossians 1: 17

[3] Jeremiah 7: 1-15

[4] Luke 2:24

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